The crowd surge, riding a wave of tequila drinks and foosball adrenaline, roared with such gusto as someone scored near the bar at Mission Taqueria that I thought I saw the illuminated blue halo flicker over the Virgin Mary.
Set inside an open-air courtyard enclosed by glass at the heart of Mission Taqueria's second-floor space above the Oyster House, this statue "watches over us all," says co-owner Sam Mink.
And her domain, with its whitewashed brick walls, picnic tables, neon lights, and potted plants hanging in open skylights, is a cheery one indeed. Because not only are there more than a few raucous margarita drinkers to keep tabs on, the wood-fired open kitchen beside her is showing some ambition, too - with cooks grinding fresh masa for tortillas from house-nixtamalized Oaxacan corn, flash-frying pig skins into airy curls of chicharrón, and roasting whole joints of lamb and pork that emerge moist and boneless on tasting menu sharing platters lined with banana leaves.
If there's a larger message to be gathered from Mission's early popularity, with more than 500 people climbing those stairs on busier days (a true feat in second-floor-averse Philly), it may be twofold.
First is the emergence of Sansom Street West - long an in-the-know hideaway for Center City lunchers - as a nighttime playground for the trendy, young, and thirsty, a crowd that will continue to grow with the recent opening of the massive Harp & Crown, a glam bowling alley and restaurant across the street.
Second is the realization that with self-propelling cocktail crowds like these - from the corporate happy hour hordes off Market Street to girls-night-out tables nibbling tacos before going to see Beyoncé - this food is probably far better than it needs to be.
That old border cuisine cantina classic of nachos gets a serious upgrade with goat chili, earthy from guajillo chilies and smaller Franciscan red beans layered among the chips with stretchy Oaxaca cheese, fresh pepper heat, and juicy cherry tomatoes.
The mahi mahi tacos are now my new favorites in town, the thick-cut bars of fish (none of this fish stick nonsense) crisped inside a delicate rice flour batter over cabbage pickled in habanero vinegar with roasted jalapeño mayo. And the house-made tortillas made from Olotillo corn (rather than the usual flour tortillas for fish) make a huge difference with every dish they accompany, the small rounds bursting with fresh earthy flavor and maintaining a pliance that's at once delicate but that doesn't split when you pick them up.
Of course, I expect quality from Mink, 40, who's maintained his family's Oyster House as a prime example of a Philly tradition that's still relevant. The Oyster House's chef, Brett Naylor, 31, is a partner here, too.
Mission's executive chef, Andrew Sabin, 39, also has the experience to translate a taqueria to a modern American concept, having worked with Jose Garces to open Distrito, among several other restaurants, as well as El Poquito in Chestnut Hill. A 2015 trip to Mexico City with Mink, Naylor, and cheerful general manager Daniel McLaughlin served as further inspiration, along with South Philly's growing collection of authentic and traditional Mexican kitchens.
Any aspersions (as have been recently cast) that this team was somehow "spying" on their South Philly competition - a charge they strongly deny as a misunderstanding - can be settled by simply tasting just how different their dishes are, for better or worse.
Mission's slow-roasted lamb barbacoa, for example, one of the three "platos grande" for sharing that anchor a reasonable three-course menu for $25, is not nearly as good as the more rustic and profoundly satisfying rendition at South Philly Barbacoa. At Mission, it arrives on a banana leaf platter, a moist and boneless mound of meat, but so overly tangy and mashed, it's almost like a strange lamb pudding. The choice to accompany it with a yogurt-based tzatziki and red quinoa tabbouleh was a false step. Yes, it's a nod to some Middle Eastern influence present in Mexican cuisine, but it unnecessarily turned an otherwise important dish into something that essentially evoked a fusion take on gyros.
Another fusiony detour, the odd hazelnut-butter-thickened coconut salsa, seemed like an unnecessarily off-topic jag when so many of the other salsas - the zippy habanero, bright fresca, and edgy green salsa cruda - were so on point.
Despite an unnaturally long pause in our meal waiting for it, the big cochinita pibil, an achiote- and guajillo-marinated pork shoulder that cooks all night long inside banana leaves, was a far more satisfying sharing platter than the lamb, the incredibly flavorful meat sided with tortillas to build out tacos with the vibrant spark of salsa verde and pickled red onions.
Not all fusion ideas were misfires. The veal-tongue tacos, which, first pickled then wood-grilled in a black crust of onion ash and pepper, are a phenomenal Mexi riff on deli pastrami - tender and flavorful, with a mustard seed mayo for a finishing touch. Then again, almost everything with those tortillas was a hit, from the skirt steak marinated in a tangy paste of dried peppers and clove to a pasilla- and avocado leaf-braised goat that had my pal Rick crowing, a very respectable pork al pastor with arbol spice and pineapples, and guajillo-colored big shrimp on tacos with pepita-thickened mole verde.
There were a couple of taco misses: the mole negro was a little thin, the house-made chorizo was poached whole and cooked more like a smoked kielbasa than the oily orange cuminy crumbles I crave in taquerias. The octopus tostada was also a major disappointment. The crispy tortilla round was already so black from squid ink the kitchen clearly had little idea that it had also scorched it to a burned bitterness, too.
We also had mixed luck with the ceviches, a few of them out of whack with too much acidity (the fluke and black bass) but a couple of others (the tuna, the seafood cocktail) rose on the pleasant surprise of assertive spice. The tortilla soup was also a solid success, full of tender roast chicken shreds and crispy tortilla ribbons, and a satisfyingly hearty broth (even if it wasn't as dark as my favorite rendition at nearby El Rey).
Such quibbles were easily forgiven as Mission's successes easily outnumbered its flaws. The drink list, despite its rather puny selection of beers, served up cocktails that rose on tropical spirits and breezy fresh juices - like the premium Baller margarita, the bright pineapple daiquiri, and the measured jalapeño bite of the refreshing Bee Sting - that I'd happily order again.
And then some finishing charms, like the cream-soaked hunk of coconut tres leches cake posed over tropical yellow fruit puree, and the sugar-dusted grooves of hot churro fritters with a molten dunk of midnight-black chocolate spiced with ancho and Mexican canela, instantly had me cheering, too. Someone may have scored on shuffleboard or foosball near the noisy bar.
But Mission Taqueria scored more than enough points at my table to be an overall win.
Next week, Craig LaBan reviews Brick Farm Tavern in Hopewell, N.J.
VERY GOOD (two bells out of four)
1516 Sansom St., 2nd floor, 215-383-1200; missiontaqueria.com
The team behind the Oyster House has opened a boisterous Mexican cantina right upstairs that's become a lively addition to Sansom Street's burgeoning nightlife scene. With great tortillas made from house-ground masa and a wood-fired grill rooting its kitchen, this modern American vision for a taqueria (in the contemporary style of Distrito and El Vez) is built on affordable tacos, small plates, and large sharing platters that land more hits than misses (those are usually on fusion detours). But when the tequila-fueled party crowd rallies noisily around the foosball and shuffleboard tables, the fun ambiance can quickly morph into a raucous fiesta.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Salsas (fresco, habanero, borracha, verde crudo); tortilla soup; chicharrón; guacamole; goat chili nachos; tuna ceviche; tacos (mahi mahi, skirt steak, cabrito, al pastor, lengua); cochinita pibil; tres leches; churros.
DRINKS Cocktails built on fresh juices and some of the restaurant's 20-plus agave spirits are the prime focus here, with a good basic margarita and an excellent upgrade - the Baller - well worth the upcharge. I liked several other cocktails, too, including the hot chili Bee Sting, and the tequila riff on a Negroni called La Rosita. The small beer selection, though, is weak.
WEEKEND NOISE When the bar crowd is in full force, the restaurant hits a horrific 98 decibels. Some soundproofing has been added recently, but not nearly enough. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)
IF YOU GO Lunch Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Dinner Monday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, until midnight; Sunday, until 10 p.m. Brunch Saturday and Sunday, 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.
Tacos, $11-$15. Three-course tasting menu with sharing platters, $25 a person.
All major cards.
Reservations suggested. Half of the dining room is set aside for walk-ins.
Not wheelchair accessible, as the second floor is reached only by stairs. Oddly, the bathroom is wheelchair accessible.
Validated parking $15 at LAZ Parking lot directly across the street, at the corner of 15th and Sansom.